China is rallying around fallen hurdler Liu Xiang Wednesday after he failed to make it past the first-round heat for a second consecutive Olympics. The sympathetic response was a stark contrast to the public outcry over his high-profile withdrawal from the Beijing 2008 Games.
Liu knocked over the first hurdle, injuring his right ankle and inflaming an Achilles tendon injury that ruined his medal ambitions at the 2008 Games. Liu then hopped on his left foot down the remainder of the track in a symbolic completion of the race, pausing to kiss the final hurdle.
"What Liu Xiang did today reflected the true Olympics spirit," said Feng Shuyong, the leader of the Chinese athletics team, in quotes carried by Chinese state news agency Xinhua. "Winning is not so important, participation is what matters."
"We've all seen how hard it is for him. It is such a pity but his spirit is there," Feng continued. "I think he made a lot of efforts over the past four years trying to do well. But in competitive sports, anything can happen."
"Liu's spirit and sportsmanship won praise, not only from Chinese sport officials and millions of Chinese, but also from his foreign friends and opponents," wrote Xinhua.
Local newspapers in cities across China carried Liu's story on their front pages, urging fans to support the athlete as he struggles to recover from injury. "It is time for him to take a good rest," wrote the Chongqing Morning Post.
On the Sina Weibo microblogging platform, where Liu Xiang was the top trending term Wednesday, the topic page for the Liu Xiang hashtag included the subheading: "Liu Xiang fell and lost his chance to qualify for the semi-final. Write one sentence to comfort him."
All eyes in China were on Liu at the London Olympics Tuesday, as he sought to redeem himself after limping off the track at his first-round heat at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
The outpouring of sympathy toward Liu is a marked contrast to the sharp anger and widespread criticism lobbed at him at the Beijing Games. His abrupt withdrawal in what was China's most anticipated event brought his coach, fans, and reporters literally to tears in the stadium.
Back then, Chinese fans denounced him as a "coward" who should have finished the match before quitting.